Thoughts before the elections

I’ve long considered myself politically apathetic, or cynical, because much of what goes on in the political sphere does not warrant my immediate attention. I have better things to think about, like for example, how to do the airbrushing right on my Space Battleship Yamato, or disciplining myself to practice on the violin more regularly.

Unfortunately, during this period as the country gears up for the General Elections, everyone suddenly becomes a political expert and deems himself/herself an excellent character judge of each and every candidate. It’s impossible to ignore the talk of the town, and I’m really more interested in how candidates are pitching themselves, rather than the content of the pitches (of course, I do care about the crazy HDB pricing).

I’ve had the fortune (some say misfortune) of covering the last two elections in the capacity of a journalist who had no choice. The entire newsroom is usually mobilized for this critical activity. A lot of work goes unpublished, but I did have a colorful time on the ground.

I followed a plucky PAP candidate for a day or two in Hougang and found out that grassroots work was a real marathon (especially during this season). The candidate lost, but he did so graciously and that was a real inspiration to me. I saw other candidates of various caliber and quite a few make a fool of themselves at their rallies.

More importantly, when I looked at the crowds at the political rallies, I saw how much Singaporeans felt helpless in being able to make a change in what kind of government they were going to get, whether they could vote or not. You could see it on their faces. Yes, they would heckle and cheer at the rally, but only for a momentary satisfaction then they would trudge home.

This elections is quite a bit different, thanks to the Internet and social media. Sure, we’ve had Internet for over a decade now, but it was only in recent years that real and meaningful networks formed with the help of Facebook and Twitter. I sound like a broken record, but hey, I’ve got something new to say, which is….

What was not obvious to the people or candidates in previous elections, has become suddenly, and painfully obvious:

1. Your rhetoric can be torn apart in mere minutes.

There are plenty of idiots on the Internet, but there is no shortage of smart people too. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading various posts like this that are both heartfelt and well thought out. In the past, with only the one way channel of the mainstream media, there was only so much that the public could respond on what ministers and candidates say.

Today, the public can analyse, dissect, and deconstruct your rhetoric in mere minutes, and then spread their opinion on the Internet far faster than you can blink. It’s not that the youth of today like to “talk back” (a measure of disrespect in Asian societies), it’s just that now your logic and rationale are open for people to discuss and determine where your true agenda is.

A few posts ago, I was asking people not to judge the 27-year-old PAP  candidate Tin Pei Ling too much until she had more chance to communicate or prove her worth.

Unfortunately, the more she speaks or writes, the more her reputation drops.

She recently posted a long-winded and ultimately empty piece on care for the elderly. The whole posting goes to pieces the minute she starts off with “Eldercare is destiny.” You know, for all the praise that your senior comrades are piling on you, you ought to learn how to write better.

2. It’s clear when you have no charisma.

It’s not difficult to spot people with charisma, whether in real life or through the media. Unfortunately, so many of our politicians and candidates lack charisma, it’s appalling.

When I say charisma, I don’t mean some sort of polished executive charm, I just mean “likeable”. It’s important for politicians to be likeable if they want the people to vote for them (such a basic requirement right?). Folks like Lim Swee Say and Khaw Boon Wan have great charisma, and it shows within minutes of meeting them.

Many people are hard workers and can do many things that they’ve promised the people, but I personally demand that if you want to pull that sort of authority and earn the high pay of a minister or MP in Singapore, you need to be a real leader that attract people to support you, not repulse people. I could name a few ministers who elicit a groan every time they speak from a script, but I’m feeling nice today.

Personally, I’m surprised that a former Chief of Army speaks like this.

3. Mainstream media is now under heavy scrutiny for colored coverage or editing.

I’ve had a ST Forum letter that was badly edited before it was published. Having edited news stories and forum letters in my time, I can tell you it’s not easy to retain the spirit of the original copy and have to work within the tight newsprint space. But hey, if you can’t retain the author’s original intention, you shouldn’t publish his letter at all.

You can read the most recent saga of how the same letter was edited poorly in ST and published more intact in Today. This is why it’s great to have newspaper competition in Singapore, it’s this sort of stuff that is both funny (to ex-media people) and sobering (to just about everyone else) at the same time.

The mainstream media has also pumped up their coverage of opposition folks this year. (Actually, I also suspect that the Opposition are more savvy at manipulating the media these days, unlike the old days where JBJ refused to talk to local media) . They don’t have much choice – if they don’t cover it, people will accuse them of all sorts of bias. Even the Gahmen has to allow this – there is no more monopoly on information. Ex TNP and Today editor PN Balji had a great insight on this.

4. Everyone’s just very bad at using social media.

The PAP must be wondering why their Facebook page has not seen a huge increase of fans (it’s about 12K now, and was 11.5K a few weeks ago) despite their grassroots base. Well, it’s because they keep spamming people’s walls daily with unnecessary pictures of walkabouts and other unimportant information! I did a quick check on a few other FB pages of the other Opposition groups and they’re sad in their own right. I refuse to re-join because I prefer to be spam-free.

The admins just don’t know how to post or create original content that fosters discussion and debate. It’s like the elections came around and everyone decided “Oh let’s get on Facebook and Twitter!” without understanding the nuances of communicating on such a critical platform. Well, you guys should have started years ago to understand how to exploit these FREE platforms, but it’s a bit too late. Just goes to show how little our political creatures understand about how people are communicating to each other these days online.

And I say again – Internet chatter is not always “noise” as the Gahmen might claim. Just because you don’t get to hear most of what people are saying (as it is all locked behind Facebook’s privacy walls) doesn’t mean the chatter is not going to help to swing opinion, and more importantly, votes.

8 Replies to “Thoughts before the elections”

  1. Great piece, Ian.

    I urge you to take a look at NSP’s social media platforms again. It recently underwent a bit of a rejuvenation, in the past week.

    The @nsp_sg account (after the rejuvenation) has been growing at a good rate and has also been widely praised.

    The NSP Facebook pages: Nicole Seah, has broken all political FB records for SG (including surpassing PAP’s), growing to >15K in just under 6 days.

    The NSP’s official FB page has grown by more than 150% in the past five days alone, and the party is actively using it to recruit volunteers among other things.

    All that said, I am acting as a digital media consultant to them on a voluntary basis — so if you have any queries do let me know.

  2. Hi Adrianna,

    Thanks for your feedback. I think it’s clear to all that Ms Seah and her FB team have done a very good job online.

    The question next for voters is, now that they know who she (and hopefully her team) is, why should they vote for NSP? Alot of Internet chatter is around who she is, but the vote will boil down to “can they deliver?” That is a topic I won’t go into because I simply don’t know enough to make a valid judgement.


  3. Yes that is the crucial next step 🙂 We are aware online ‘likes’ aren’t necessarily the same as real world votes, but I would wager that as far as SG politics is concerned this is likely the first time we have been able to get such a sense of the ground in such an instantaneous, unfiltered manner. That works out to be a great or terrible thing depending on who you ask.

  4. I think it’s not so much that Nicole Seah’s FB was actively managed and tactically executed to grow to this size within less than a week. I was the few 1k to “like” on 20th April..and at that time I had commented that this forum will have a giant momentum of its own , a combustion , an un-pre-meditated phenomenon. Somehow, the TPL issue was a catalyst but more important than that, the voice of youth was crying out for an outlet to exhange many hotbed of ideas and rants.

    So what started by Nicole Seah to garner and collate ideas on her Facebook page (as well as to elicit online and offline support) had just undergone a metamorphosis . It had become a talking point for oppositional politics, democratic values, grumblings about current situation, and also a link to other opposition groups and ideas.

    All in, to use a cliche, a marketplace exchange of news, snippets, gossips, scandals, ideas, rhetoric and what have you. Now isn’t this what people want to read rather than the flat articles we read in mainstream media? Online PAP didn’t get it and I don’t think NSP (nor Nicole Seah) could foreseen it either.

    Simply said, it may be just the constellation of stars and moon that line up on each other, in that once in a lifetime moment situation.

  5. Could not have been foreseen, but even when one manages social media for brands and other commercial purposes this sort of thing cannot be foreseen either. The best you can do is to put the parts of the machine in place and then let something else help it combust (a juxtaposition with a PAP candidate, mainstream media coverage, anything..). It had all the makings of a good social media case study.

    In any case what’s more important is the good that’s come out from it — the degree of interaction (that’s lacking in negativity compared to some other politicians’ pages), the 2 way communication (recruitment of volunteers that have come from the people who ‘like’ the page), and other practical things like that.

    All in, quite heartening. We certainly haven’t had such a phenomenon happen, and why it’s so refreshing is also because nobody could have foresaw such a thing.

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